Prelude to War
Rivals in North America
Rival claims between the French and the English to the vast territory along the Ohio River between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi approached a climax about 1750. The Ohio Company (organized in 1748 by a group of prominent Englishmen and Virginians who saw the economic and financial potential of the area) had obtained a large grant of 200,000 acres in the upper Ohio River Valley. From its post at Wills Creek, now Cumberland, Maryland, the Company planned additional settlements and started to open an 80-mile wagon road to the Monongahela River.
Meanwhile, the French, who considered the Ohio a vital link between New France (Canada) and Louisiana, advanced southward and westward, from Fort Niagara on Lake Ontario, driving out English traders and claiming the Ohio River Valley for France. In 1753, Governor Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia learned the French had built Fort Presque Isle near Lake Erie and Fort Le Boeuf in that part of the Ohio country claimed by Virginia. He sent an eight-man expedition under George Washington to warn the French to withdraw.
Washington the Emissary
Washington made the journey as a British emissary in midwinter of 1753-54. He was 21 years old. French officers politely told Washington they were not obliged to obey his summons, and they were going to stay. Washington returned to Virginia and informed Governor Robert Dinwiddie that the French refused to leave.
The Fort Necessity Campaign
In January 1754, even before he learned of the French refusal to abandon the Ohio Valley, Governor Dinwiddie sent a small force of Virginia soldiers to build a fort at the forks of the Ohio, where Pittsburgh now stands. The stockade was barely finished when a French force drove off the Virginians and built a larger fort on the site. The French called it Fort Duquesne in honor of the Marquis de Duquesne, the new governor of New France.
In early April, George Washington, newly commissioned lieutenant colonel, started westward from Alexandria with part of a regiment of Virginia frontiersmen to build a road to Redstone Creek, present day Brownsville, Pennsylvania, on the Monongahela. He was then to help defend the English fort on the Ohio.
When Washington reached Wills Creek, he learned the fort was in French hands. He resolved to push on to Redstone Creek and await further instructions. By the end of May, his force was well beyond Wills Creek when the commander of the expedition, Col. Joshua Fry, arrived there with the rest of the Virginia Regiment.
Did You Know?
The action at Fort Necessity was the first major event in the military career of George Washington. It marked the only time he ever surrendered his army to an enemy.